040615-mis-nws-african-american-history

Fort Shaw, Montana. A portion of a barracks and part of a company of the 25th U.S. Infantry, 1890.

Photograph by C. Eugene LeMunyon

It’s a question worth pondering: If you had to identify documentable places in your town associated with African-Americans, could you do it?

They’re out there in Montana, though not in abundance. Most are in urban settings and there are more in Butte, Great Falls, Helena and Miles City than in our neck of the woods.

The preservation office at the Montana Historical Society in Helena is setting out to find them, and it’s using a $27,000 matching grant from the National Park Service to do it.

“Scholars have barely scratched the surface in identifying places that convey the rich heritage of the black community,” project historian Kate Hampton said in a news release announcing the grant. “We are thrilled and so grateful to the National Park Service for their support, whereby scholars, families and the public will gain a tangible link to this important aspect of our history.”

Last year, Congress appropriated $500,000 to states and territories to jump-start efforts to recognize, preserve and interpret the legacies of groups that are traditionally underrepresented in heritage initiatives.

“Montana was fortunate,” said Mark Baumler, the state historic preservation officer in Helena. “We were one of only 13 grants that were given out in the first round of these particular grants.”

The Montana project is branded “Identifying African American Heritage Places.” While researchers will focus on Helena, where some 40 residences, businesses and social centers will be identified and documented, Baumler said it’s a statewide project. Additional properties will be recognized in 16 other communities, including Missoula.

In 2007, the stage Legislature funded a starter program at the Montana Historical Society that employed student interns to inventory the society’s holdings related to blacks. They made census records, timelines and biographies available online on the society’s African-Americans in Montana web page.

“This program is kind of taking that and extending it out to ask if there are any places associated with those people who are identified with that study,” Baumler said.

The web page will be upgraded, and at least one property in the state will be nominated to the National Register of Historic Places that’s administered by the National Park Service. Baumler said all local preservation officers will be asked to help by recording at least one property that isn’t recorded yet.

In Missoula, connecting influential African-Americans to places that aren’t already listed might be a trick. Fort Missoula was the home of the famous 25th Infantry Bicycle Corps that pedaled 1,900 miles to St. Louis in 1897. But the Fort is already on the National Register of Historic Places, as is the University of Montana, where the likes of pioneer athletic trainer Naseby Rhinehart and professor Ulysses Doss plied their trades.

Rhinehart, who passed away in 1991, was head trainer at UM for 47 years and in 1971 became one of the first in the nation to develop a curriculum for athletic training. Doss founded one of the few black studies programs in the nation in the late 1960s and led it for 25 years.

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